Refugees and displacement


Forced by circmstances beyond our controlRefugees are often in the headlines yet the reality of their lives is frequently misunderstood.

Tens of millions of people have been uprooted from their homes because of violence or persecution.

But not all these people are refugees. Villagers in Sudan’s violent Darfur region who have fled to camps within Darfur are strictly speaking known as internally displaced people because they haven’t left Sudan. Darfuris in camps in neighbouring Chad are refugees because they’ve crossed an international border.

The definition of a refugee is someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality…” (1951 Refugee Convention)

Although the convention doesn’t specifically deal with people fleeing war, or conflict-related conditions such as famine, the United Nations considers them refugees.

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Are numbers rising or falling?

The global refugee population hit a peak in the early 1990s at over 17.8 million, partly due to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Numbers fell dramatically after that until the mass exodus from the Iraq war pushed them back up.

And with more and more internal conflicts replacing interstate wars, the number of internally displaced has risen significantly in recent years.

By the end of 2010, there were 15.4 million refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR – the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

UNHCR is responsible for 10.5 million refugees, and another 4.8 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank are helped by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Another 27.5 million people were displaced within their own countries because of violence or persecution, according to UNHCR. This figure does not include people uprooted by disasters like quakes and floods, who numbered 42 million in 2010, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Aid workers call these internally displaced people “IDPs” for short, sometimes distinguishing between conflict IDPs and disaster IDPs.

The media often employs the term refugee incorrectly to describe economic migrants or illegal immigrants.

Economic migrants leave a country voluntarily to seek a better life. If they returned home they would continue to receive the protection of their government. Refugees would not.

Refugees and IDPs – what’s the difference?

Refugees and IDPs have often fled for the same reasons, but there are crucial differences in how the two groups are treated.

Once they cross an international boundary refugees will normally receive food, shelter and a place of safety. They are protected by international laws and conventions.

The U.N. refugee agency and other humanitarian organisations work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives or eventually return home.

By contrast, IDPs have little, if any, of the protection and help that refugees get. The domestic government, which may view them as enemies of the state, retains control of their fate. They may also fall prey to rebels and militias operating inside or outside the camp.

There are no specific legal instruments relating to IDPs and no U.N. body dedicated to their needs. Donors may also be unwilling to offer help if it means intervening in internal conflicts.

There’s widespread debate on who should be responsible for IDPs. UNHCR is not specifically mandated to cover their needs, but as they face many of the same problems as refugees, the agency oversees their protection and shelter in some places.

Refugee crises

In a crisis most refugees do not head to the West – they head over the nearest border. For many years Pakistan has hosted the largest number of refugees, taking in millions of people who fled violence in Afghanistan.

However, large numbers have returned since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Iraq is another source of large numbers of refugees. In 2006 and 2007 about 2 million people fled to Syria and Jordan whose schools, hospitals and public services became seriously overstretched. The majority are still living as refugees in these countries.

Chad, one of the world’s poorest countries, is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees from conflicts in Darfur and Central African Republic. The influx is putting pressure on scarce water and food resources.

People who apply for refugee status normally need to establish individually that their fear of persecution is well-founded.

However, individual screening may be impossible during mass exoduses sparked by crises like Darfur or Somalia. In such circumstances, it may be appropriate to give everyone in the group refugee status in the absence of evidence to the contrary.

IDP crises

Three conflicts in Sudan – civil war in the south which ended in 2005, fighting in Darfur in the west and unrest in eastern Sudan – resulted in massive internal displacement. Despite peace in the east and mass returns of people to their homes in the south, the figure in 2010 stood at 4.8 million, according to IDMC.

Conflicts in Colombia, Pakistan, Congo, Somalia and Iraq have also created massive internal displacement. For figures have a look at the IDMC’s table.

There can be wide discrepancies in figures for displacement. Governments may give lower numbers for political reasons while pressure groups may bump them up.


Arriving at a camp for refugees or IDPs does not ensure safety. Violence may come from militias and rebels operating inside or outside the camps.

After the 1994 Rwandan genocide large numbers of Hutus fled into Democratic Republic of Congo. It took a while for aid organisations to realise that Hutu militia leaders blamed for the massacres of Rwandan Tutsis virtually controlled the camps.

Another example is the camps in West Timor for refugees who fled the violence sparked by East Timor’s independence vote in 2000. These camps were teeming with pro-Jakarta militia. Attacks and intimidation got so bad that UNHCR was forced to suspend its work. The militia also stopped refugees who wanted to return home to East Timor from leaving the camps.

Militias are not the only problem. Camps may also come under attack from troops targeting rebels they think are sheltering inside. This has happened in Darfur.

Refugees may also end up in a country that is itself far from safe. In a horrifying case in 2004, armed men attacked a camp for Congolese refugees in Burundi, setting huts ablaze and killing around 160 people, mostly women and children.

Cross border attacks are another danger. Agencies often try to make sure camps aren’t too close to borders, but refugees may want to be near the border so that they can go home as soon as it seems safe.


Women face particular dangers when forced to flee their homes. They are at risk from sexual and physical violence both inside and outside camps.

In Darfur they have often been raped while on long trips from the camps to look for firewood. There have been reports in Iraq of militants demanding sex in return for delivering clean water to the camps.

Often separated from their husbands, they may also be forced to take on the responsibility of providing for their families on top of their traditional roles. And without agricultural land, they may have to leave camps to forage for food.

And they may be forced to resort to prostitution to support their children. Often women refugees use all their savings just to get out of the country. They have no source of income and their bodies may be the only thing left they have to sell.

This has happened with Iraqi women who fled to Syria. Some may have been tricked into the sex trade but many say they had no other means of supporting their family. Displaced women in Colombia tell similar stories.

Women may not even be safe within their families. There is strong evidence that domestic violence rises with displacement. Depression, unemployment and other stresses can lead men to take out their anger and frustration on women.

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Displaced children also face many dangers, especially if they have become separated from their families.

They risk abduction and recruitment by rebels or government forces, enslavement and sexual exploitation.

Displaced children also miss out on education. Experts estimate that many of Colombia’s displaced are school-age children and that most never return to the classroom.

Malnutrition levels are often high among displaced children and healthcare limited or lacking altogether.


Poor nutrition, sanitary conditions, dirty water and lack of access to health services mean refugees and IDPs are prey to a host of diseases, most of them preventable.

Common ones include diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, measles and meningitis. Overcrowding in camps contributes to the spread of illness.

Many people displaced by a conflict or disaster also suffer trauma-related problems. Children may be particularly affected.

It is often forgotten that people fleeing war may have been tortured, raped or witnessed atrocities. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly recognising the importance of providing psycho-social help but support remains limited.

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Going home

Most refugees eventually hope to return home. But not everyone starts packing their belongings the minute a peace deal is signed.

Mass repatriations can create more problems than they solve if the home country doesn’t have the capacity to absorb them.

Pakistan is keen to repatriate all remaining Afghan refugees as soon as it can, but Afghanistan lacks shelter, jobs, infrastructure and security.

If people return only to discover they have no house or job, analysts say they may join the Taliban out of resentment or be forced to join in order to survive. Others will simply return to Pakistan.

UNHCR has asked the international community to invest in infrastructure, shelter and livelihoods for returnees to prevent this happening.

Going home is rarely as straightforward as it sounds.

Returning refugees may find other people have taken over their land and/or home while they’ve been away. Ownership records may have been destroyed or never have existed.

And there may be nowhere to grow crops – after years of conflict the land may be overgrown or littered with landmines.

Public healthcare, schools, roads, water supplies and sanitation may all have fallen into disrepair or be non-existent.

Returns can also rekindle ethnic animosities and land disputes. And just because there’s a peace deal doesn’t mean the bloodshed is over. Look at Congo and South Sudan.

Some people may not want to go home. Some residents in the camps in Pakistan have been there more than 25 years. The camps have clinics, schools and jobs; many of the villages they’d be returning to in Afghanistan have nothing. Many of the younger people in the camps were actually born there – they’ve never set foot in Afghanistan.

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In some cases refugees can’t go home because they would face persecution. In such cases UNHCR tries to resettle them in the asylum country where they are living or in a third country.

Several countries have established annual resettlement quotas whereby they take a certain number of refugees each year. Countries without quotas may consider individual cases, often because of family or cultural links.

Refugee experts say the U.S.-led global “war on terror” and tightened immigration procedures have hampered resettlement programmes.

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The future

Despite massive repatriation operations in West Africa, South Sudan and Afghanistan, the number of refugees is rising as many conflicts deteriorate.

But the number of people fleeing violence could soon be dwarfed by those displaced because of global warming and environmental changes.

Rising sea levels, deforestation and desertification are just some of the reasons that will force people to move.

A predicted rise in natural disasters such as floods, droughts and landslides is also likely to increase displacement.

Mass migration will raise the chances of conflict over shrinking land and resources like fresh water.

Predictions vary for the numbers of people who will be forced to migrate because of environmental change, but the most widely cited is Norman Myers’ estimate of 200 million displaced by 2050. Myers is professor at Oxford University.